'Middle East's tragedies unfolded as Lawrence ignored'

Nearly a century of tragedy and instability seen in the Middle East could have been avoided or at least mitigated if the promises made to the leaders of the Arab Revolt during World War I had been honoured instead of dividing the region into "artificial nations", said a biographer of Lawrence of Arabia.

And the way the Ottoman empire in the Middle East was carved out by two relatively junior officials - Mark Sykes for Britain and Francois George Picot for France - even as the war was in progress would have been comic had it not been for the consequences that have followed and the anti-Western feeling it has engendered, said Scott Anderson, author of "Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly, and the making of the Modern Middle East".

But the Arab Spring and recent events indicate that the final dismantling of "artificial nations" like Iraq, Libya, Syria and maybe later even Jordan has begun and the region will return to the shape it held during the Ottoman empire, Anderson said at a session on the opening day of the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015.

"Iraq has effectively been three countries for some time now... similarly Libya which again seems to be breaking into the three 'vilayets' (provinces) it was under Ottoman rule," he said.

"The Ottoman empire is seen as lousy but they were clever... tribes had autonomy. So long they paid taxes, they were entitled to self-rule, the decentralisation and the lack of central cohesion kept their empire together," he said.

The Arab revolt's success was followed by British or French rule, where the Shakesparean tragedy of Lawrence arose - the increasingly divided man who inspired and led the Arabs to freedom on the basis of promises he knew his country had no intention of keeping, while trying to stay loyal to his country, Anderson said.

"Lawrence was aware of the Sykes-Picot agreement but he tried to oppose it - even telling Prince Feisal (to who he was the British liason) of its provisions. He perhaps knew it would have been folly to bring the region under its control," he said.

Anderson said this was based on Lawrence's knowledge of the mosaic of tribes and clans of Arabian society and how it would make them ungovernable under a central authority - and his experience then of how the Egyptians (under British rule since the 1880s) were chafing and the difficulties the French faced in Morocco.

And Lawrence's achievements were considerable - given the circumstances.

"Lawrence had a touch of genius .. otherwise how could have a 28-year-old junior officer with no combat training become a battlefield commander," he said, adding this was possible to him being "the right person at the right time". "An eccentric Oxford scholar had great freedom of movement with the region seen as a backwater in the conflict," Anderson said.

But Lawrence was not alone. There was an American oil operative who became the chief field agent for the region - but saw all his analysis go wrong, said Anderson.

Anderson is a long time journalist with several books to his credit but the Lawrence book is his first book of history. He says what drew him to profile Lawrence was the fascinating story of a man who became a matinee figure in his time, was later almost forgotten until the David Lean movie in 1962 resurrected his reputation - at least in the West.

"He is, however, not seen in similar light in the Middle East. One, because there is legitimate resentment that the Arab 'creation story' has a white guy at the helm. And then in view of what happened, they suspect he was a British agent all along," he said.


"Lawrence's enduring legacy is the great lost opportunity that could have prevented or at least mitigated a century of tragedy in the region," he said.

"All other insurgencies, be it the Colombian rebels or the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, were fighting for something but the Arabs were only fighting against something - the Western imperialism that fostered a culture of grievances," noted Anderson.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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